Why I Don't Trust Book Reviews Online

The logo for Amazon.com is displayed at a news conference, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
The logo for Amazon.com is displayed at a news conference, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

There is quite a bit of chatter on the Internet this week about the state of online book reviews. Is the discussion of books happening out there falsely positive? Or, is the atmosphere overly nasty and negative? (Visit Goodreads or Amazon for a taste of both experiences.)

Too Much Pandering?

Let's start with Jacob Silverman's piece on Slate about the "epidemic of niceness in online book culture." To summarize: he calls into question the way authors behave on Twitter and other social media outlets. He wonders, with good reason, how a reviewer ("professional," a blogger, etc.) can write or even Tweet honestly about a book if a friendly author has made a personal connection online with the person writing the review. He also addresses the literary community's mass enthusiasm for books not yet read, or worse, read and then mentioned everywhere with too much stretching of the truth.

In other words, if every book is a "must-read," and "amazing," then how can people looking for suggestions take all this hyperbolic Tweeting and Facebooking seriously?

But Do We Really Want More Snark?

On The Rumpus, Michelle Dean wrote a thoughtful response to Silverman's criticism of the lack of criticism out there in the literary landscape. At the end she questions whether readers (and writers, obviously) truly want or need "more bare name-calling and bitchery on the Internet" (emphasis is Dean's, not mine). We probably don't. Agree?

What to Make of Reviews From Aspiring Novelists?

I publicly addressed a similar concern about reviews (several weeks before Silverman's article, I'd like to note) when I asked in the comment section of writer Hallie Sawyer's blog if readers can trust reviews from aspiring novelists. The way I see it, aspiring novelists, many of whom have blogs, would never burn a bridge in the publishing world. With that in mind, I'm sometimes suspicious of reviews on those blogs.

Hallie responded with an entire post called: "Can a Book Review be Called a Review if it Isn't Critical?" At the end she came up with a sensible solution for the book "review" section of her blog. Acknowledging that she didn't want to write negative reviews (I feel the same way), she changed the book section of her blog from "reviews" to "recommendations." Obviously Hallie and I encounter books we don't like. Guess what? We don't waste space on our blogs writing about them.

The Problem With Amazon And Goodreads

I have heard authors complain about three and four-star reviews on those sites. I absolutely understand where those authors are coming from, but if every "review" is five stars, then what do five stars even mean anymore? Don't we all know or at least suspect that those over-the-top positive reviews are written by family and friends of the author? And that includes, of course, online "friends."

On the flip side, there is a disgusting amount of anonymous, rage-filled garbage on those sites aimed at these hardworking authors. We're talking about people's careers here. Sure, writers develop thick skin, but nobody's skin is thick enough for some of the cruel nonsense on those sites.

What Do I Say Online About Books?

I do not write reviews on my blog. Okay, I wrote one called "50 Shades Overrated" in March, but that was an exception. What I do instead is keep track of the books I've read and write pithy blurbs. If I say I "loved" it, I did. If I couldn't stand a book, I probably didn't finish it and you won't see it on the list. (Again, Fifty Shades aside.) I'm not going to tweet that I hated a book. And I'm not going to write a negative review on Goodreads or Amazon. I'm just not.

Generally if I devote an entire post to a book (like I did with Rachel Bertsche's MWF Seeking BFF and Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project), the crux of the post is more about me than the book. My blog, after all, is not a book blog or an established place of literary review.

I suppose when it comes down to it, I'm also engaging in a bit of dishonesty by not mentioning the books I didn't like. Maybe Silverman is right. Maybe we're all too nice. Nevertheless, I'm with Dean and others who agree that the last thing we need online is more snark. No thanks.

Do you trust reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or anywhere else online?

A version of this article first appeared on http://ninabadzin.com.